This is Part-4 of a trip report from my very first TGO Challenge, a walk across the Scottish Highlands. If you missed the first parts, you can find them here:
Planning for the TGO
Part-1: Torridon to Orrin River
Part-2: Orrin River to Loch Ness
Part-3: Loch Ness to Braemar

Cutting down on my weight
Cutting down on my weight

Day 10 – A Challenge Party
Braemar to Lochcallater Lodge
12:30-14:30 (2 hours), 9 km

I left Braemar after enjoying a tasty breakfast at Gordon’s Tearoom. Nothing like bacon and black pudding to fuel a day’s walk. Two hours later I arrived at Lochcallater Lodge. A few other Challengers had already set up tents just outside and more were inside enjoying hot tea. I was really excited to be at Lochcallater, perhaps one of the most prominent landmarks in TGO Challenge history. Every year Challengers gather here to celebrate, sing songs, and eat and drink late into the night.

Setting up camp at Lochcallater Lodge
Setting up camp at Lochcallater Lodge

The atmosphere was wonderful. Seeing so many friends re-unite after a year apart was touching. And how can you not be in a good mood when you’re in a warm cozy room full of like-minded walkers as cold rain falls outside?

Enjoying hot tea and good company
Enjoying hot tea and good company
All smiles
All smiles

Day 11 – Snowstorm
Lochcallater Lodge to Shielin of Mark Bothy
08:30-16:30 (8 hours), 22 km

Ascending Lochnagar
Ascending Lochnagar

After enjoying a bacon butty (I’m not losing any weight on this walk), I said my goodbyes and set off for my second munro of the trip, Lochnagar. This time the weather wouldn’t be so cooperative. A light rain started then quickly turned to sleet, then big wet snow flakes.

It begins to snow
It begins to snow

At first the snow melted on contact with the ground (and me), then it started to stick. As I reached the top of the munro, the snow was settling 3-5 inches deep in spots and beginning to obscure the trail.

Starting to stick...
Starting to stick…

A thick cloud sat over the summit, also obscuring any views that I might have otherwise enjoyed.

Summit markers
Summit markers

But as I dropped down from the summit, the clouds seemed to lift a bit and rewarded me with fantastic views down to Loch Nagar (the lake, rather than the mountain, in this case). Steep snow chutes plummeted straight down the cliffs just feet in front of me. It looked like winter.

It's winter up here
It’s winter up here
Loch Nagar below
Loch Nagar below

The descent down from Lochnagar was long but uneventful. I was surprised how many people were walking up for a day trip, being a Monday. Plenty of tourists but lots of locals as well. Once I reached Glen Muick and started climbing again, all of those people had disappeared. I was once again venturing into boggy moors where you’re certain to get soaking wet feet and, if you’re not careful, quite lost.

My intended destination for the night was Shielin of Mark which Roger Smith, my vetter, described as “a small bothy well hidden among peat banks and requires careful navigation to find”. So, I took my time, despite a rain that started in earnest and never let up. I checked my map and compass frequently, making sure what I saw in the real world made sense. I do think Scotland is a great place to sharpen one’s navigation skills. As luck would have it, just as I popped up over the edge of a bank, the bothy appeared only meters away. I was pretty happy to find it. To my surprise there was only one other person there (I’ve forgotten his name, unfortunately). Even more surprising, he was doing the crossing with only a bivy bag, not even a tarp. That’s pretty brave given how much it rains.

Shielin of Mark
Shielin of Mark
Shielin of Mark Bothy
Shielin of Mark Bothy

Arriving at the bothy and finding space available to sleep inside was excellent. One of the experiences I wanted to have in walking across Scotland was spending a night in a bothy. I’d passed by others, preferring to camp, and this was likely my last opportunity. Being able to do it on such a rainy day, made it all the more rewarding.

A nice place to spend a cold night
A nice place to spend a cold night

When I woke up the next morning I found a hard frost on the ground and the grass crunched loudly under my feet as I walked. Very glad I spent the night inside.

Mist rises after a hard rain
Mist rises after a hard rain

Day 12 – Another Great Meal
Shielin of Mark to Tarfside
09:00-15:30 (6.5 hours), 18 km

As you walk over the trail-less hills around Shielin of Mark, heading east and meeting up with a wide jeep track, you feel a little like you’re emerging from the wilds back into civilization. Now each step takes you a touch closer to villages and towns and cities.

Walking toward the Stables of Lee
Walking toward the Stables of Lee
A bit of heaven
A bit of heaven

And yet, there’s still so much beauty and history.

Invermark Castle
Invermark Castle

Whenever I happen upon an old graveyard or church while on a walk like this, I make a point of stopping. Sure, I like to do big days, but I’m not here just to make miles. I like to find the oldest gravestone in the cemetery, read about the minister who established the church in 1803 and faithfully served until his death. Sometimes the most inconspicuous places hold the most splendour.

I visit an old graveyard
I visit an old graveyard
Tarfside's St Drostan's
Tarfside’s St Drostan’s

I’ve felt so fortunate to experience the social side of the TGO Challenge so far and I’m really looking forward to a highlight of the event’s gatherings. Each year St Drostan’s Episcopal Church turns into a hostel for Challengers. When I arrived at St Drostan’s backpacks were already piled at the entrance and the unmistakable aroma of hot tea, bacon butties, and freshly baked biscuits drifted out and enticed me in. I’d actually planned on camping in the nearby sports field but the atmosphere of the hostel and the exceptionally friendly staff made me want to stay the night. I shared a room with Barry who inspired me with stories of previous crossings. There’s something infectious about the Challenge. Yes, walking across Scotland from coast to coast is a memorable life experience but sharing that experience with so many other great people is what makes you want to come back and do it again.

Enjoying hot tea and biscuits
Enjoying hot tea and biscuits

Day 13 – Out of the Hills
Tarfside to North Water Bridge
08:30-16:30 (8 hours), 29 km

The walk from Tarfside along the River North Esk is quite a nice one. It’s peaceful and green, full of flowers and surrounded by verdant pastures. Cows and sheep lazily watch as you walk by.

Bright skies
Bright skies

As I arrived in Edzell and saw significant road traffic for the first time since Aviemore, I knew I was entering a very different landscape. Behind me rose the wild and rugged hills I’d just left and ahead lay farmland and people. Looking around for other Challengers I met Graham, doing his 24th crossing! We sat down at a café for lunch and Graham told me stories of past Challenges. He’s done his most difficult since turning 60. That’s inspiring!

Edzell
Edzell
Why not enjoy a good hot meal?
Why not enjoy a good hot meal?

Graham showed me an inconspicuous walkway beside the petrol station that leads to a nice path along the river. I’d never have known about if it weren’t for him showing me. For anyone considering doing the Challenge for the first time, I’d suggest doing lots of research on the final few days of walking and probably put it all into a GPS. It’s one thing to use a map and compass in the wild but quite another knowing where to find hidden little paths through villages. Or, better yet, walk with some experienced Challengers. You’re back in civilization at this point, so why not share the experience?

Local wildlife
Local wildlife

Day 14 – Finished!
North Water Bridge to St Cyrus
08:30-13:00 (4.5 hours), 17 km

I actually chose to stop just short of the caravan campground at North Water Bridge, preferring a peaceful spot I’d found while walking through a forested area. The motorway was far enough that I couldn’t hear it and camping under the trees was quite nice. The next morning, as I passed the caravan campground, Graham was just leaving. We walked together for some distance and his knowledge of this walk to the sea proved invaluable. I’d have been checking my map at every turn, no doubt.

It's a long walk along the road
It’s a long walk along a rather straight road

Eventually, Graham’s pace was too much for me and I settled in with some slower walkers. I enjoyed meeting many more people on this final walk, including Bob from The Outdoors Station. Chatting with Bob was quite interesting after having listened to many of his podcasts. Sharing the walk made being on a paved road not so bad after all.

Soon we were at the end of the crossing – the sea cliffs of St Cyrus. I waited for Sil who took the bus from Dundee to walk down to the beach with me. Touching the North Sea for the first time gave me a feeling of accomplishment and completion. You can finish the Challenge most anywhere along the east coast but I was very glad I’d chosen somewhere so picturesque as St Cyrus.

Beautiful beaches of St Cyrus
Beautiful beaches of St Cyrus
Touching the waters of the North Sea
Touching the waters of the North Sea

We caught the bus to Montrose and joined the celebration dinner. The atmosphere was very festive and even here many old friends were running into each other for the first time during the crossing. It’s touching seeing so many smiles and hugs. I really enjoyed how the organizers went out of their way to recognize everyone involved, from all the volunteers and contributors to each Challenger. It certainly made me feel special. Perhaps most inspiring was seeing those completing their 10th or 20th crossing receive awards. That’s inspiring! Perhaps I’ll have to return…

Celebration dinner in Montrose
Celebration dinner in Montrose

And a few bonus photos…
Sil and I visited Stonehaven, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh in the few extra days we had in Scotland after I finished the TGO Challenge. It was great to see some of the more classic tourist attractions that the country has to offer.

Dunnottar Castle
Dunnottar Castle
Dunnottar Castle's prison
Dunnottar Castle’s prison
Stonehaven is known for great seafood
Stonehaven is known for great seafood
Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle
Yet more delicious grub
Yet more delicious grub

TGO Challenge 2015 trip report index:
Planning for the TGO
Part-1: Torridon to Orrin River
Part-2: Orrin River to Loch Ness
Part-3: Loch Ness to Braemar
Part-4: Braemar to St Cyrus

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14 thoughts on “Walking across Scotland – the TGO Challenge (part 4)

  1. Great write up Justin, I really enjoy reading about TGO crossing from the pen of an overseas challenger. It brings new perspectives we often miss.

    1. Thanks John,

      I’ve really enjoyed reading your TGO trip report as well. It’s inspiring to see someone really push hard and complete such a challenging route. Now I have even more ideas for my next crossing 🙂

  2. Excellent read and beautiful photographs, thank you!
    Louise
    (Sat next to you drinking tea at St Drostan’s)

    1. Thanks Louise!

      It was great to meet you at St Drostan’s. That was such a nice place to relax and chat. I can see why so many Challengers make it a destination. I still miss the bacon butties 😉

  3. Hi Justin

    Just found your trip report. Excellent write up with lovely pics. We met at Callater, And it was an excellent evening, my first experience of this too.

    Margaret Oliver

  4. Thanks Justin. Four of us from ottawa will be off to Torridon in may for the TGOC on essentially the same route. Do we need to book for the Sutherlands food or stay? Would you have an email or contact info for them. Would also be interested in your food planning and restocking. We will bring some meals and I suppose can restock in aviemore and braemar. Thanks.
    Dara. Dara ohuiginn, ottawa TGOC TEAM CANADA 2016

    1. That’s fantastic, Dara! You’ll love it. Torridon is a beautiful place to start the challenge. I carried food from the start to Aviemore, where you can restock. There is a grocery store and a number of outdoor shops in Aviemore. If you’re planning to walk to Aviemore via the Burma Road, the last few km into town feel really long since you walk near a busy road. Braemar also has outdoor shops where you can buy dehydrated food. Both Aviemore and Braemar have some good restaurants and pubs.

      In general, following a route similar to mine, you’ll need to carry more food in the west than the east. As you get closer to the east coast, you often pass through towns where you can eat at a restaurant or pub.

      I’ll email you the Sutherlands’ contact info. Last year they let challengers mail resupply packages to their house, which could be a good option. Double-check to make sure they’re still doing that before sending anything. They also cook up a delicious dinner and breakfast – one of my favourite experiences on the whole trip.

      Have a fantastic walk. Scotland has such beautiful scenery and you’ll meet some great people.

  5. An enjoyable account of your crossing, Justin. As others have said it’s refreshing to hear a fresh outlook on the beauty of Scotland. I have spent many holidays in Scotland but next year will hopefully be my first TGO Challenge as I have sent off my application and now await confirmation!

    All the best.
    Elton.

    1. Thanks Elton! The TGO Challenge was really enjoyable. I hope you have a great time and that you found some useful ideas in my trip report. If you have any questions, feel free to ask.

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